An early strategy for making new technology feel familiar
I was thinking this morning about two subjects that don’t usually go together, skeuomorphs and morality.
A skeuomorph is a design element applied to a product that looks as if it’s functional but really isn’t. Its real purpose is to evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort. The literary critic N. Katherine Hayles cites as an example the dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which is made of synthetic plastic molded to look as if it’s stitched fabric.
Software designers use lots of skeuomorphs for their user interfaces; examples include the “pages” that seem to “turn” in e-readers and word processing programs. Hayles calls skeuomorphs “threshold devices.” They “stitch together past and future,” she says, “reassuring us that even as some things change, others persist.” (more…)
Given that we’re not in the habit of thinking too much where our technological passions might lead us, I’ve been heartened over the past year to see an unusual willingness to confront the potentially devastating impact of the robotics revolution on human employment.
It was a question that was hard to avoid, given the global recession and the widening gap between rich and poor. It’s obvious that rapid advances in automation are offering employers ever-increasing opportunities to drive up productivity and profits while keeping ever-fewer employees on the payroll. It’s obvious as well that those opportunities will continue to increase in the future. (more…)
Brad Pitt’s latest movie, which opens today, is being described as an attack on capitalism, at least as it’s currently practiced in America.
When “Killing Them Softly” premiered at Cannes last spring, an article in the Los Angeles Times called it a “post-Occupy” film and “what the documentary ‘Inside Job’ might look like if it was a fictional feature.”
“Inside Job,” you may recall, is director Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning examination of how Wall Street speculation and duplicity led to our current economic crisis. The action in “Killing Them Softly” takes place during the stock and housing market crashes that got the current crisis rolling; visible in the background are clips of presidential candidates Obama and McCain making promises (still unfulfilled) of economic reform. Director Andrew Dominik’s underlying theme, according to the Times, “is that U.S. capitalism is deeply flawed, and that government, whether Democrat or Republican, has let down its people.” (more…)
As many have noted, technology – specifically, email accounts – played a central role in the ongoing scandal involving the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus. “Harassing” emails sent to socialite Jill Kelley led to the FBI’s discovery of emails that revealed Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell; other emails led to the discovery of questionable exchanges between Kelly and another top-ranking official, General John R. Allen; subsequent searches found classified documents on the hard drives of individuals who weren’t authorized to have them.
With the indispensible assistance of the media, reverberations have been ricocheting furiously up and down the corridors of power and gossip from Washington and Langley to Florida, Afghanistan, and Libya since the scandal broke last Friday. It’s not the first time these elements have combined to produce a sensation, but it’s the messiest we’ve seen lately. (more…)
I’m an admirer of the writer Ellen Ullman, the software engineer turned novelist. Her 1997 memoir, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, is a wonderfully perceptive reflection on her years as a professional programmer.
Ullman recently wrote a commentary for the New York Times on the computerized trading debacle triggered last month by the brokerage firm Knight Capital. In it she reaffirmed a crucial point she’d made in Close to the Machine, a point I find myself coming back to repeatedly in this space. To wit: If you think we’re in control of our technologies, think again. (more…)
Last month the Heartland Institute, a climate-denying “think tank,” plastered Ted “The Unabomber” Kaczynski’s scowling face on a series of billboards in Chicago.
I still believe in global warming,” the copy read. “Do you?
Kaczynski has long been the figurative poster boy for technophobic insanity, of course, but the Heartland Institute made it literal. The billboard campaign was quickly recognized as a miscalculation and withdrawn, but it served as a reminder of what a gift Kaczynski turned out to be for some of the very enemies he sought to destroy. It also served as a reminder of how egregiously he misused the ideas of a philosopher who is revered as a genius by many people, myself included.
I refer to Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society. Ellul died 18 years ago last month; this year marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth. (more…)
A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry on technological autonomy. It made the point that a nation’s commitment to advanced technologies can result in a situation where its economic well-being is directly counter to the physical or psychological well-being of its people. The point I’d like to make today is that the commitments of corporations to advanced technologies can become similarly antithetical.
The example in that previous post was Japan’s commitment to nuclear power. Here I’ll consider two examples involving specific consumer products: the international sale of sports utility vehicles and the international sale of snack foods.Both examples raise an important definitional question: Which is the driving force, technology or capitalism? It’s a hard question to answer because at a certain stage of development the two are so closely intertwined that it’s often impossible to separate them. On the one hand, the spread of global capitalism would clearly be impossible without mass production technologies. On the other hand, capitalism is clearly the economic model most responsible for the development and exploitation of mass production technologies.
The historian David F. Noble has argued that technology is “the racing heart of corporate capitalism,” implying that capitalism directs the enterprise while technology supplies the motive force. I think you could just as successfully argue that the opposite is true. The best solution is probably to say that the relationship between technology and capitalism is dialectical, or symbiotic. Sometimes technology stimulates capitalism, other times capitalism stimulates technology; in advanced technological/capitalist societies neither could exist without the other. From either perspective an expansion of influence becomes a priority that overwhelms every other consideration, which is another way of defining a condition of de facto autonomy.